Tesco may be accused of hastening the demise of the English village shop. But it need not worry, since it knows how contradictory we are
PG Wodehouse’s character Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts, discovered that it was possible either to be a retailer of superior ladies’ lingerie or a fascist dictator, but not both. Tesco has learnt a similar lesson. It is possible either to be well-loved or bent on world domination, but not both.
Hence the paradox that the company is Britain’s largest and most successful shopkeeper and arguably the most disliked brand in the country. It is not difficult to see why: Tesco has come to embody the conflict between nostalgia for a passing England and the ineluctable march of the modern world. Its success comes at the expense of smaller, independent shopkeepers, and as they fall under the scythe of an unstoppable giant, the heart is removed from villages, towns and, increasingly, city centres. What makes this maddening and frustrating is that Tesco’s shoppers see this happening and are accessories after the fact, but they simply cannot help themselves – the lures of easy, free out-of-town parking and unbeatable prices are irresistible. So we hate Tesco and, if we are honest, we hate ourselves a bit, too.
Nor does it help when the company’s chief executive Sir Terence Leahy answers all critics with the commonplace but irrefutable observation that the company’s success speaks for itself. People vote with their wallets, so that’s okay. But it isn’t okay. The market, wonderful mechanism though it is and the best means yet devised for expressing desires and satisfying wants, is both morally neutral and untouched by conscience. It is also capable of concealing a myriad contradictions. Just as people will tell opinion pollsters that they favour high taxes to fund public services when in truth they abhor the idea of paying yet more to the Treasury wastrels, shoppers will happily say one thing yet do something quite different. Of course, they want quaint corner shops, but not to shop in, just to look at from the window of a passing car. Of course, they are concerned about global warming, but sacrifice a cheap flight to the Costas? You must be joking. Of course, they hate pollution, but an SUV is a must for the school run, on safety grounds naturally.
Only the Greens have an answer, and that is to impose taxes of such a stupendous order that we return, impoverished, to a kind of rural Arcady and take up new careers as weavers, potters, and so on. Should that provide the desired improvement in climatic conditions and restore the polar icecaps to the sizeable chunks of yesteryear, we ought seriously to consider consolidating the process by becoming hunter gatherers.
Naturally, the Greens are a touch barmy, but their hearts are in the right place. The same cannot be said for the health and safety apparatchiks and their various politburos, nor for the meddlesome quangos whose business is to get in the way of business. So, and not without misgivings, it is necessary to admit that Tesco is not always wrong, and indeed is sometimes very right.
Such is the case in its dispute with the Food Standards Agency (FSA), an organisation whose doors and windows could be boarded up and its inmates immured until they saw sense without any harm being done to anyone. The FSA is furious because Tesco refuses to adopt its traffic-light system of food labelling, preferring instead an alternative of its own. The supermarket says the FSA’s system – which uses red, amber and green labels to describe high, medium and low levels of salt, fat and sugar in food – is too simplistic.
This intransigence (no, let us not be mealy-mouthed, this downright disobedience and insubordination) has aroused the wrath of the FSA’s bossy chairperson Dame Deirdre Hutton, who says of Tesco, “You have to wonder why it is choosing to ignore the weight of evidence.” What is that supposed to mean? Does she imply that Tesco either has something to hide or, worse still, is deliberately selling goods that make people fat and unhealthy? The answers, in order of asking, are no and yes.
Yes, Tesco sells food that, when eaten to excess, makes people fat, but if they choose to buy it and eat it, well, that is their decision, and no business of Dame Deirdre. The unavoidable truth is that just as shoppers adore corner shops with striped awnings but shop at Tesco, they recognise the health-giving property of fruit, vegetables, and home-cooked food but buy processed rubbish. Asked to choose between getting fat or submitting to the diktats of a Ministry of Healthy Eating, the free-born Englishman licks his lips, reaches for the ketchup and adds an extra couple of inches to his waistband.